An appearance in the MLS Cup final notwithstanding, this could be the most important game Toronto FC play all season.
Unlike the conference semi-finals and finals, Wednesday’s knockout game against the Philadelphia Union is a one-off, winner-takes-all affair. Win, and the Reds’ 2016 season is the best in their history. Lose, and major changes could follow.
“[Sunday], at around six o’clock, a new season started,” captain Michael Bradley said on Monday. “Ultimately, what happens from here on in is what people are going to remember for the next few months.”
It could even be the legacy Bradley leaves as captain. Speculation surrounding the 29-year-old’s future continues to ramp up ahead of the end of the MLS season and the January transfer window, with talk that Toronto have started the process of identifying a potential new designated player particularly intriguing in that regard.
Crash out early for the second year running, of course, and the decision to enforce changes to the roster becomes more tempting. There is little to no chance of a major overhaul in terms of the quantity of incoming and outgoing players before the 2017 season, but if Bradley does depart the team could look significantly different regardless - especially if the $6 million he leaves behind is spent on a different position.
“This is not a team that’s going to have a lot of turnover in the offseason,” president Bill Manning said. “We have a good nucleus of players, we think this is a team that can be good for many years.”
Bradley is not the only one who could have some thinking to do if the Reds’ season ends prematurely. Though there is no indication his job may be on the line just yet, head coach Greg Vanney will face some serious questions if Toronto fall flat in the knockout round once again.
“We’re three days out from the biggest game in club history, so in terms of how you evaluate the whole package, let’s do that hopefully after [the MLS Cup final on] December 10,” general manager Tim Bezbatchenko said.
“We’ve won a Canadian Championship, qualified for the Champions League, we’ve hit a number of the benchmarks that we set out publicly. There’s more for us to do, and I don’t think anyone will be satisfied unless we can pick up a win on Wednesday and then make a run.”
Vanney has hit all three targets - concerning the eight-game road trip to start the season, the team’s regular-season points total and their goals-against column - that Manning set for him at the start of the campaign, but he has run a risk over the past few weeks by tinkering frequently with his team, both in terms of formation and personnel. If Toronto do not look like a coherent side on Wednesday night, his critics will have plenty of ammo in the event of a defeat.
“In this league - and in North American sports - this is kind of how it works,” Vanney said. “You get to the playoffs and a lot of times your season, in the end, is defined emotionally by this last stretch.
“It’s natural in sports here for people to want to gauge your season based on your playoff run,” he added. “It’s part of the exam but there’s the entire year that’s there as well that indicates progress - we’ve definitely made progress - and now we need to go out do the business to try to bring some excitement to this city and try to bring a trophy here. That’s what this next stretch is about.”